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  • Re-Imagining American Communities:Hollywood, Hawks, and Ford in 1939
  • John Belton

Classical Hollywood cinema is a character-centered cinema; its narratives are driven by dramatic agents in pursuit of clearly defined goals; narrative progress is built around the central character encountering and overcoming a series of obstacles to those goals; and closure occurs with that character's unambiguous attainment or failure to attain those goals (Bordwell 18). For the most part, these struggles take place within specific social formations or communities. Implicit in this struggle is the illusory notion of individual agency—that characters, through hard work, industry, skill, and perseverance, can make things happen (or not). At the same time, the social context within which these struggles take place becomes the site for another sort of myth making: that of the notion of community itself. Against a reality of individual semi-anonymity and disempowerment within an industrialized, commodified mass society, classical Hollywood narratives frequently provide an ideological alternative to the dystopic reality of individual, community, and nation. This paper seeks to examine two specific instances of the utopic re-imagining of individual, community, and nation in 1930s Hollywood and to suggest some ways in which mass culture has been instrumentalized to accomplish certain ideological projects—specifically, works of mass culture function to "manage" social and political anxieties. As Fredric Jameson suggests, "Mass culture [is] not [an] empty distraction or 'mere' false consciousness, but rather a transformational work on social and political anxieties and fantasies [End Page 1166] which must then have some presence in the mass cultural text in order subsequently to be 'managed' or repressed" (Jameson 25).

I want to begin with a basic observation made by Martin Rubin about the changing status of the individual within Hollywood narratives of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Rubin argues that the "rugged individualism" of the 1920s, as individualized in the heroic figure of Charles Lindbergh—the "Lone Eagle"—is problematized by cultural historians of the period, such as Parrington, Krutch, Dewey, and Lippman as "dangerous," associating it with the traits of laissez-faire capitalism that led to the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression. Rubin notes the emergence of a new form of individualism (New Deal individualism) in which individual identity and agency is dependent on the regenerative powers of collective experience (Rubin 65–69). That is, through immersion in a Populist version of the collective, the individual discovers a new, non-dangerous form of individualism.

A simple comparison of the basic narratives of early and late 1930s films directed by Howard Hawks and John Ford gives some sense of this transformation in the status of the individual. In Scarface (1932), the gangster hero pursues what Robert Warshow calls "an individual pre-eminence." "The gangster's whole life is an attempt to assert himself as an individual, to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual" (Warshow 133). Hawks's gangster hero becomes vulnerable because he has isolated himself from others by jealously killing his best friend and, simultaneously, turning his own sister against him. He dies alone, shot down in the street by an anonymous hail of police bullets. In Only Angels Have Wings (1939), on the other hand, the central character Geoff belongs to a group of ex-patriate American pilots who fly the mail in South America. The film is explicitly about the group and the sense of identity with a community that it provides. The film's dramatic conflict focuses on the attempts of various characters to integrate themselves into the group, culminating with the creation of an interdependent team of fliers who accomplish the narrative's final mission.

For Ford, a somewhat similar trajectory can be charted from The Informer (1935), perhaps the director's most famous film of the early 1930s, to Stagecoach (1939), his signature, pre-war Western. In the former film, the central character informs on a friend (who is an IRA leader) to the British authorities, is found out, and killed by the IRA. The film documents his isolation from his fellow countrymen as he slowly realizes that he has betrayed his own community. The central characters in Stagecoach move through...


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